“I stood there frozen. I couldn’t believe what was happening, I didn’t know what to do. It was like a scene from hell.”
This was how Roel Llarena felt when a mountain hike turned into a nightmare on Tuesday as Mayon Volcano began spewing out giant rocks, killing five of his companions.
Llarena, 33, was one of the Filipino tour guides leading a group of foreigners up the 2,460-meter Mayon when the picturesque volcano suddenly shot a column of hot ash into the air.
The volcano, famed for its near-perfect cone, has a history of deadly eruptions. But it was not showing signs of activity when the tour group ascended, leading many to think it was safe.
“The tourists were all very nice and we were exchanging stories with them the previous night. I can’t believe this all happened, especially when the night before we were just all having fun,” Llarena said by phone.
Turning back too late
The group was climbing the mountain when rain started to pour down. Recognizing the danger, Llarena and the others began to turn back only to see a column of ash shoot from the cone.
The hikers took cover behind a huge rock as boulders, some as large as mini-vans, began tumbling toward them and carried some people to their death.
Llarena said a fellow guide, Nicanor Mabao, saved an Austrian woman by grabbing her by her bag. But three Germans, a Spanish woman and a Filipino guide—Llarena’s brother-in-law—were killed by the cascade of rocks.
Rescue teams recovered the five bodies but bad weather prevented helicopters from landing on the mountain and the body bags were carried down by hand.
A Thai tourist who went missing during the ash explosion was found with minor injuries on Tuesday, local officials said.
Volcanologists described the eruption as a 73-second “steam-driven minor explosion” that was not expected to be repeated anytime soon.
Chief state seismologist Renato Solidum said the explosion was triggered when the rainwater made contact with hot ash deposits on the crater mouth.
Albay Gov. Joey Salceda said some tourists were drawn to the volcano because of the danger.
“Mayon Volcano is an enigmatic personality. The more she does this, the more they will come. The more the danger, the more the tourists,” he told reporters.
But Llarena will not be guiding them anymore.
“After this I’m definitely not going back to Mayon. I curse Mayon Volcano. I vow never to climb it again,” he said.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) on Wednesday maintained its zero alert status on Mayon Volcano, indicating no imminent eruption a day after steam-driven explosions rocked the peak and left five trekkers dead.
In a bulletin, the agency said it detected no increase in overall volcanic activity, and all seismic parameters remained within background levels in the past 24 hours. It monitored only two minor rockfall events on the slopes of the volcano.
“Phivolcs still maintains Alert Level 0 over Mayon Volcano, which means that no magmatic eruption is imminent,” Phivolcs said.
But it warned the public against “small phreatic eruptions” including small steam and ash explosions that may occur suddenly with little or no warning.
Explosion lasted 2 minutes
On Tuesday morning, steam trapped in the crater of the volcano triggered a series of explosions, dislodging rocks and emitting gray to brown clouds that rose half a kilometer above the summit, seismologists said.
Phivolcs said the steam and ash ejections lasted about two minutes and 26 seconds. But the agency dispelled fears of any imminent magmatic eruption.
The ash clouds rose 500 meters high above the summit and precipitated traces of ash in the areas west-northwest of the volcano, affecting Barangays (villages) Muladbucad (in Guinobatan town) and Nabonton, Nasisi, Basag and Tambo (in Ligao City), all in in Albay, and areas up slope of these barangays, Phivolcs said.
Phivolcs also strongly reminded the public to refrain from entering the six-kilometer radius Permanent Danger Zone due to the “perennial threat of sudden steam-driven eruptions and rockfalls from the upper and middle slopes of the volcano.”—With reports from AFP and DJ Yap
Originally posted at 07:48 pm | Wednesday, May 8, 2013